June 9, 1995
Running down a raging river in a open raft is one of the most exhilarating activities in the West, and this year’s whitewater season is shaping up to be the best in memory. With wet Pacific storms continuing to dump snow in the Rocky Mountains, communities and government officials are nervously anticipating a delayed snowmelt which threatens flash floods and brimming reservoirs.
For rafting enthusiasts, “river rats,” dramatically high water flows will provide enough thrills to extend the season well into late summer.
“The river runoff forecast from the National Weather Service and the California Department of Water Resources predicts streamflows to be well over 150% of average on many Western rivers,” said Bob Volpert of Outdoor Adventures, one of California’s largest river outfits. “We’re going to see higher water, bigger rapids and a longer rafting season than we’ve had in years.”
In Colorado, the home of the headwaters of several major Western rivers, the Denver Post reported extremely high snowpack levels in several river basins. Colorado’s snowpack level, said the Post, was at 306 percent of average entering June. Figures for major river watersheds were:
- Arkansas River – 323% above normal
- Colorado River – 263% above normal
- Gunnison River – 470% above normal
- Upper Rio Grande River – 253% above normal
Volpert advises those planning a river trip to carefully choose the river and time of year to best suit their expectations. Those seeking Class IV and V water (the most harrowing on the raftable scale) should plan an early season trip.
Those seeking calmer water and warmer weather, or planning a family rafting adventure, should wait until summer when flows subside. Rivers ideal for family rafting include the Lower Kern in California, Oregon’s Rogue and the Salmon in Idaho.
The Post reported that because of high runoff, the toughest stretches of the Upper Arkansas River (said to be the West’s most popular whitewater destination) – the Numbers and the Royal Gorge – are likely to be closed for safety reasons for several weeks this spring. The wet and wild conditions may be a blessing, however. Often, early season trips can be chilly, especially in steep canyons where prolonged periods of rafting in the shadows, combined with the inevitable soaking rafters receive, can lead to hypothermia. As river flows subside in late June, July and August, warmer weather will make raft trips more pleasant.
The Colorado River Outfitters Association offers the items to consider when planning a whitewater excursion:
- Length of trip: Half-day, full-day or multi-day.
- Class of water: Whitewater thrills or relaxing float trips.
- Level of participation: Paddle with the guide or relax, hang on and let the guide row you.
- Equipment: What equipment, such as wet suits, camping equipment and safety gear does the outfitter provide? Is there a fee for rentals?
- Children: What services does the river outfitter offer children? What’s the minimum age requirement?
Photo courtesy of Colorado River Outfitters Association.